In the face of opposition from the Obama administration, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee leaders have unveiled major elements of a $500-billion surface transportation bill that would carry highway, transit and rail programs through the next six years and restructure Dept. of Transportation programs.

The proposal would represent about a 50% boost over funding for the past six years, but it doesn't specify where the additional money would come from.

It also must contend with a radically different counter-proposal from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who has called for an 18-month reauthorization that apparently would amount to an extension of the current program.

According to a summary of the House committee "blueprint," released June 18 by the panel's chairman, James Oberstar (D-Minn.), and its top Republican, John Mica (Fla.), and other senior committee members, the bill would authorize $337.4 billion for highway construction, $99.8 billion for mass transit, and $12.6 billion for highway safety programs. The $450-billion total for those three sectors is a 38% jump over authorizations for the past six years. The new legislation also would provide $50 billion for high-speed rail.

In addition, the proposal would slim down the federal-aid highway structure by ending or consolidating 75 programs into just four:

  • Critical Asset Investment, which would combine the current Interstate maintenance, National Highway System and bridge programs

  • Highway Safety Improvement, which would focus on reducing highway fatalities and injuries by reducing hazards on the roads

  • Surface Transportation, a flexible program to allow states and metropolitan areas to carry out highway and transit projects

  • Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality, an existing program that would be revamped.
  • The measure also would establish the position of undersecretary for intermodal policy at DOT to coordinate efforts of its highway, transit, safety and other agencies.

    Oberstar said the legislation is a "transformational" initiative for surface transportation. The bill had not yet been introduced on June 18, but Oberstara is aiming to have the bill considered in subcommittee on June 24.

    Although the blueprint doesn't include a funding recommendation, Oberstar has suggested one possible source would be to raise the motor-fuels taxes, but deferring the hike for perhaps two or more years until the U.S. economy shows sustained growth. Another possibility he mentions would be to index the fuels tax to account for inflation in construction costs.

    Construction groups praised the proposal. Stephen Sandherr, CEO of the Associated General Contractors, said that Oberstar and the other committee leaders "understand that the debate must...focus on how to deliver a transportation system that will support economic growth, protect the environment and improve quality of life.�And they are right to start this debate now, and not 18 months from now."

    He added, "Given the crucial role infrastructure plays in virtually every aspect of our economy and environment, delaying this debate for sunnier days is as politically unrealistic as it is economically untenable."

    American Road & Transportation Builders Association CEO Peter Ruane said, "Action on a robust, reform-oriented multi-year reauthorization bill, as proposed by the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee leadership, is the only way to combat the combination of an economic downturn and increasing state budget difficulties."

    Ruane added, "As history shows, putting the federal transportation programs in limbo contributes to uncertainty at the state level and leads to overall market stagnation.